Sunday, April 25, 2010

David Aaronovitch's Voodoo Histories

Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History by David Aaronovitch (2010) by British journalist David Aaronovitch analyzes some older and more recent conspiracy theories and serves as a primer on how to analyze them. He takes on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Soviet purge trials of the 1930s, anti-New Deal fanatics who developed the Roosevelt-planned-Pearl-Harbor story, the postwar Red Scare that has come to be described generally as McCarthyism, Kennedy assassination theories, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana murder theories, 9/11 Truthers.

For American readers, his chapter on conspiracy theories around the 1984 murder of a peace activist, Hilda Murrell, is not likely to be as familiar as some of the others. The 2003 death of David Kelly of the British Ministry of Defense in connection with the leak of materials around the fraudulent claims of "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq will be more familiar to Americans who followed the story in connection with the Iraq War.

He takes a look at the hodgepodge of pseudohistory that went into the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982), some of which were incorporated into the book and movie, The Da Vinci Code. He uses this as a lead-in discusses various pieces of pseudoscholarship such as Immanuel Velikovsky's catastrophism and Erich von Däniken's fanciful gods-from-the-sky archaeology. And since he was writing parts of the books after Obama became President, Aaronovitch also looks at the anti-Obama Birthers, using them as an introduction to the anti-Clinton conspiracy theories that proliferated during the last Democratic Presidency.


Aaronovitch's book is particularly helpful in analyzing some of the ways in which scammers and the just plain credulous or careless can go wrong in evaluating evidence of some mysterious occurrence. Even a pro like Seymour Hersh can sometimes get conned, as Hersh did during the preparation of his embarrassing book The Dark Side of Camelot (1997), when he accepted as authentic a group of documents about Jack Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe forged by a man name Lex Cusack. fortunately for Hersh, ABC did an investigation that determined them to be forgeries and "Hersh removed all reference to them from his book." Apparently the forgeries fit so well will Hersh' very dim view of JFK that he neglected to have them properly forensically analyzed before initially accepting them as authentic.

This example he gives is a good caution to keep in mind, because copious footnoting and misleading references to authorities as standard procedures for the Glenn Becks and Mad Annie Coulters of the world:

The conspiracists work hard to give their written evidence the veneer of scholarship. The approach has been described as death by footnote. Accompanying the exposition of the theory is a dense mass of detailed and often undifferentiated information, but laid out as an academic text. Often the theory is also supported by quotations from non-conspiracist sources that almost invariably turn out to be misleading and selective. To give one characteristic example, David Ray Griffin's book about 9/11, The New Pearl Harbor, describes Thierry Meyssan as the head of an organization "which the Guardian in April 2002 described as 'a respected independent think-tank whose left-leaning research projects have until now been considered models of reasonableness and objectivity.' " This is a masterpiece in disingenuousness, given the full Guardian quote: "The French media has been quick to dismiss [Meyssan's] book's claims, despite the fact that Mr. Meyssan is president of the Voltaire Network, a respected independent think-tank whose left-leaning research projects have until now been considered models of reasonablenessand objectivity. 'This theory suits everyone - there are no Islamic extremists and everyone is happy. It eliminates reality,' said Le Nouvel Observateur, while Liberation called the book 'The Frightening Confidence Trick ... a tissue of wild and irresponsible allegations, entirely without foundation.'" Not the same thing at all.
I see that what may be the mother ship of conservative conspiracy theories, the John Birch Society, has a review of Voodoo Histories in their publication The New American, No, Sir, That Ain't History: A Review of David Aaronovitch's "Voodoo Histories" by Joe Wolverton II 02/09/10. As of this writing, the Web site with the article prominently features an advertisement asking "Who Really Runs America?" with the logo "The John Birch Society - Standing for Family and Freedom". It's advertising a book called, The Shadows of Power: The Council on Foreign Relations And The American Decline by James Perloff. The Council of Foreign Relations has always been a favorite bogeyman for the Birchers. Wolverton concentrates the first several paragraphs assuring us that Aaronovich is a snotty know-it-all who looks down at reglur folks who don't agree with him. Apparently for the Birchers, working at Rupert Murdoch's paper The Times of London, as Aaronovich currently does, is prima facie evidence that he's part of the Insiders conspiracy to keep the truth from reglur white folks.

And, hey, doesn't "Aaronovich" sound kind of, you know, Jewish? Wolverton finds it suspiciously notable that Aaronovich devotes the attention he does to the fabrication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which Woverton calls "a text that describes a reputed plan by Jews to dominate the world". Warning: reading Bircher material can send your head spinning at the convoluted double-reverse brand of argumentation you find there.

Wolverton advises his readers:

Those who are truly steeped in the historical record of the rise and fall of the grand republics and empires of history realize that the powerful conspiracies contrived to enslave mankind are not concocted in advertised meetings attended by secretaries transcribing the minutes. Those confabs and the plots hatched therein are more secretive, surreptitious, and ultimately Satanic than any of the fantastical fiction ever produced by the penny press.
[my emphasis]
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